In 1770 Wolfgang von Kempelen invented the Turk. A wooden automaton which proved to be virtually unbeatable at chess for the next 84 years. It was not until after the Turk had travelled the world and played thousands of matches (including challenges from Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin) that the true secrets of it’s inner-workings were revealed.
Carriages approaching Schönbrunn Palace could be seen approaching almost a mile away, this before they even crossed onto the massive forecourt enclosed by a semi-circle of imposing rococo palace buildings. The forecourt itself was over 300 meters long and waiting for a carriage to cross it, even in the fairly mild summers of Vienna, could be an exhausting prospect. For this reason only the most exalted of visitors received a royal welcome in the bright Austrian sunshine, and even then rarely. This is why, save for the guards on post, few people, if any witnessed the arrival of a balding Hungarian mathematician on horseback, leading a heavy wagon carrying something covered by a thick tarpaulin.
The summer palace of the Austrian Empire was not above hosting intellectuals of dubious social standing (such as Hungarian mathematicians whose expertise was in the accounting needed by decidedly wealthy, though decidedly common, tradesmen,) as Empress Maria Theresa, was of a practical mind, and found distraction frequently in the entertainments of learned men. A monarch’s life is never easy and being the soverign ruler of the House of Hapsburg with dominion over Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Mantua, Milan, Lodomeria and Galicia, the Austrian Netherlands, and Parma as well as having through marriage becoming the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Duchess of Lorraine, German Queen and Holy Roman Empress took its toll on the warm hearted and artistically oriented eldest daughter of Charles VI.
Though it was not politics, at least not politics primarily, that Maria Theresa sought distraction from in the summer of 1770. Instead her mind was occupied with concern for her youngest daughter, Maria Antonia. An indolent child with more concern for arts and music than the practicalities of royal life (much like the Empress herself in her younger years,) Maria Antonia had in April been wed to the French Dauphin, and though her beauty was a triumph, it did little to quell the jealousy of the ladies of the french court. Behind her back they called her l'Autruchienne, a deliberate mis-pronunciation of the term ‘Austrian woman’ which instead meant ‘ostrich bitch’.
The daily correspondence between the mother and daughter was a lifeline for the young Dauphine, and the Empress encouraged the girl to have heart, and become strong. Reminding her that she was no longer Maria Antonia, Archduchess of France, but rather a French Princess, renamed Marie Antoinette.
When the drawing room doors of Schönbrunn Palace were drawn open and the mathematician Wolfgang Kempelen announced, the Empress was intrigued. Six months before, after an amusing demonstration of magnetics and slight of hand by the French illusionist François Pelletier had left Kempelen nonplussed. The Hungarian insisted that he could easily out-perform Pelletier and his tricks, but not with slight of hand, instead using science and mathematics to produce something truly magnificent. Now Kempelen had returned, and his confident air was infectious. Whatever the Hungarian had brought to satisfy his promise must be truly astounding reasoned the courtiers, for the air put off by slightly built, wispy-haired academic was already victorious.
Kempelen strode confidently forward and courteously bowed low to the monarch. "Your highness, for your pleasure may I proudly present the highest achievement in science your humble servant has to date produced. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Turk."
On cue, two young men, dressed in colorful middle-eastern garb entered from the far doorway. Between them they carried a carved wooden box the size of a writing desk. The front of the Cabinet had placed in it three equal-sized locked doors, below which was a short drawer which ran the cabinet’s full length. Despite the flamboyant costumes on Kempelen’s assistants all eyes focused on the man in the middle.
He was hard to not notice, a tall, stern-faced character with a swarthy complexion dressed in a long fur-lined robe. Atop his head he wore a Muslim taqiyah cap, which was wrapped in a turban, held together in the middle by a large red jewel.
The Turk moved forward smoothly and it was instantly apparent he himself was seated in a way that somehow held him attached to the back of the box. His head bobbed slightly as the young men trod to the center of the room, though when they set their heavy burden down the Turk’s gaze out from under his bushy eyebrows was unnervingly steady. His arms were motionless, one resting gently on the table-top the other grasping the bowl of a long Turkish pipe, a pipe which stretched almost two feet to rest on the far end beneath the Turk’s cartoonishly immense mustache. The ladies of the court began to titter.
Empress Maria Theresa lifted a bemused eyebrow. She addressed the Hungarian inventor, "You have brought us a puppet, Herr Kempelen?" One did not reach the estimable age of 53 in Austria without learning to recognize the wooden clockwork figures which festooned clocks, drawing rooms and playhouses throughout the empire.
"Begging your pardon your highness, but the Turk is not a simple puppet. He is an automaton." With a flick of the wrist Kempelen signaled his assistants who lifted the box, and the Turk, and in a rehearsed maneuver turned both around in a circle, exposing the back of the box and revealing the small attached stool on which the Turk was perched, his stick-like legs dangling useless to one side.
"Why does he have legs?" ventured a young, plump lord from Bohemia, "It appears as though he does not walk." Normally speaking out of turn would have gained the impudent Lord a variety of scornful glares from nearly every corner of the room, yet Kempelen’s display of showmanship had inspired an air of gaiety among the members of the court, even the Empress allowed herself a barely detectable smile at the young man’s observation.
"Your Lordship assumes correctly, the Turk does not walk. Though the legs are superfluous, I did not want to be accused of bringing to the court an automaton who was not wearing trousers."
Quite a few of the ladies in waiting giggled at this, while a few Lords enjoyed the freedom of the moment to laugh out loud.
Kempelen lifted the back of the Turk’s long burgundy robe, revealing a simple wooden frame which was the structure of the automaton’s chest and shoulders. A mostly empty shell criss-crossed by a few cords which led from the interior of the cabinet to a variety of pulleys at the base of the arms. Kempelen plucked one string between two fingers and by means of a demonstration pulled it down. In a corresponding motion the Turk lifted his pipe bearing hand, as if taking a long toke.
Kempelen addressed the Empress with a bow, "Your highnesses observation of puppetry was indeed very astute. As you can see, indeed the Turk does function very much like a puppet. These strings move his limbs, allowing him to grasp objects, or as you can see," Kempelen pulled the string again, "smoke from his pipe."
"If the strings pull the arms, Herr Kempelen, what pulls the strings?" Maria Theresa asked, and Kempelen smiled politely at the anticipated question. He dropped the robe and his assistants turned the desk back so the Turk was facing the court.
Pulling a ring of brass keys from a vest pocket, Kempelen crossed the front of the cabinet. "As you can see we have three doors for accessing the interior workings of the automaton." The Hungarian bent over and inserted a key in the leftmost of three identical doors built into the front of the cabinet. "These, your highness, are the workings of which you inquired."
The door swung open to reveal an intricate and tightly packed clockwork mechanism of gleaming brass gears and levers. "These mechanics control the strings." Kempelen walked to the back, and opened a duplicate door behind the brass gear works. "As you can see it is a complex mechanism, so we have a door built into the back for access to either side." He held a candle to the back, showing that the gears filled the entire left third of the cabinet.
Satisfied that the entire group had seen the brass clockworks, Kempelen closed the left-side doors, first the back, then the front. Taking the keys he then unlocked the second and third doors, which he opened to reveal a mostly empty area, crossed by only a few ropes which passed through a hole in the partition separating this chamber from that containing the now hidden clockworks. Kempelen passed again around to the back of the machine, and unlocked two matching rear doors. It was plain to everyone there was nothing between the front and the back of the right two-thirds of the cabinet but air. Almost apologetically the mathematician explained, "Only the left side of the cabinet was required for all the workings of the automaton."
Kempelen closed the back and then the front doors. Sealing the interior of the cabinet as he did so. One of his assistants stepped forward and opened the drawer at the base of the cabinet.
"You see," explained the Hungarian, "the automaton, the Turk if you will, was designed with the finest craftsmanship, and therefore required only a small area for his inner workings, but I made his cabinet larger so he had more room to display his skill."
"Skill, is not something a machine possesses." objected a Duke from Croatia.
"Ah," said Kempelen who crossed to the left side of the cabinet "this is exactly what I too was led to believe."
One assistant stepped forward to pass the inventor something from the drawer, an angled piece of metal. Kempelen inserted one end into a hole in the left side of the box and its use became apparent, it was a crank to wind the clockworks. K
empelen methodically turned the crank as he spoke, "Machines have been created by man to do increasingly complex tasks. Starting with the wheel, which allowed us the freedom of motion up to today’s innovations such as the Hargreaves Jinny, which can spin 120 threads with the work it previously took to spin one, or the Hadley's quadrant, which uses mirrors and lenses to allow us to see the marks of the moon with the naked eye."
While the inventor spoke, an assistant was carefully arranging a chess set atop the cabinet, setting the pieces in their familiar positions. The black on the side nearest to the Empress, and the white nearest to the Turk.
"I simply thought to myself, if machines can be made to do more and more complicated tasks, what is the outer limit? What is the most difficult thing we could ever expect them to do?"
The Empress raised an inquisitive eyebrow for the second time since the Hungarian mathematician and his autonomous Turk entered her drawing room.
"Herr Kempelen, you don’t mean to say that this, Turk, actually plays chess?"
From inside the cabinet a mechanical chime sounded and Kempelen stopped cranking. A young Dutchess gasped in the silence that followed, as she was the first to see the bushy brow of the automaton dip down slightly, his head turning slowly back and forth as his lifeless eyes set deep in his wooden skull reviewed the board. The entire court leaned perceptibly closer in anticipation and disbelief and it was a young baronet who was the first to make a noise - an embarrassingly high-pitch squeak - when the lifeless arm of the Turk rose steadily and with precision. The wooden hand opened with a well-oiled motion and picked up a white pawn. Moving it exactly two spaces forward.
Kempelen removed the hand crank gently from the side of the cabinet.
"Not only does the Turk play chess your highness, he quite often wins."
Johann Baptist Allgaier was uncomfortable.
He was uncomfortable because he was thirsty, and all he had was a oilskin pouch filled with warm red wine.
He was uncomfortable that despite being the best chess player in Berlin (and therefore Germany), he could still barely keep his family fed.
He was uncomfortable because the man he was working for, Johann Nepomuk Mälzel was a scoundrel.
But today, Johann Baptist Allgaier was primarily uncomfortable because he was lying on his back, with his knees painfully bent and desperately trying to remain quiet and motionless on the bottom of a 39 year-old wooden box.
Looking up through the thinest crack in the wooden plank that lay only a hair’s breadth from his nose, Allgaier could swear he saw Mälzel looking down at him through the very same opening and giving him the slightest, most imperceptible wink, before shutting the door on the back of the box.
He was despicable, thought Allagaier.
Allagaier knew his disapproving opinion of Mälzel was not a solitary one. It was well known that among other scandalous acts Mälzel had conned even the revered composer Ludwig Von Beethoven out of a symphony; had stolen the design for the metronome device he now claimed to have invented, and rumor was Mälzel had even cheated the son of the deceased inventor of the confounded machine to buy the infernal device for half of what it was worth.
But Mälzel was paying, and Allagaier needed the money. A job, was a job, and the closing of the door was a cue.
Allagaier pressed his fingers to the board above him, waiting.
When he heard the front door of the box close with a click and a smooth catching of a brass lock, Allagaier moved quickly, sliding the board off of his torso, and sitting up - ever so quietly - and lowering his knees as his legs straightened. As his legs dropped down, springs smoothly and silently expanded a set of brass gears and pulleys, until an impressive clockwork machinery filled the entire width of the cabinet, including the area where Allagaier’s knees had recently been. A moment later the clockwork chamber was sparkling with candlelight as Mälzel opened a door with a flourish.
The timing was no act of chance.
Had Allagaier not moved his legs, and the clockwork not slid into it’s appropriate place the door would have remained locked as a precaution to preserve the illusion. Mälzel would be quite upset in such an instance, Allagaier supposed, but no such misfortune had ever occurred. This was a role Allagaier had performed many times at the incessant cajoling of the con-man Mälzel, and it was a motion he could do - and possibly sometimes did do - in his sleep.
Today was somewhat special, reflected Allagaier, noting to himself that even the regularly cool, and shark-like Mälzel seemed slightly unnerved by today’s exhibition.
Who wouldn’t be nervous? considered Allagaier. Today’s opponent was present to put down an uprising borne of Austrian betrayal. The agreement to be negotiated in the Schönbrunn Palace over the next few days was a testament to the opponent’s mastery of strategy, and lack of hesitancy when it came to exacting swift and punitive penalties on those who betrayed him. The fact that Allagaier, an Austrian and Mälzel, a Bavarian, were attempting to deceive the commander of the largest army Europe had ever known was not far from the mind of either man.
Mälzel set the board and pieces atop the cabinet, seemingly in haste and with none of the usual fanfare. Perhaps, speculated Allagaier, the Frenchman was looking impatient, or worse yet bored. It had happened before, and it was not inconceivable that the mere presence of a yet unproven chess-playing marionette would fail to impress a man whose scientific inquisitiveness had inspired not only the canning of foods for preservation and the invention of champagne, but also had instituted the adherence of his empire to the scientific standards of le Système international d'unités; a system based not on feet and inches but a more scientific measurement in divisions of ten.
Mälzel began turning the crank on the side of the machine, generating an inharmonious clockwork clatter which echoed painfully throughout the interior of the cabinet, providing an opportunity for Allagaier to strike an unheard match which then lit the solitary candle allowing him to see the chessboard he now hastily set up. Soon the smoke from the sputtering candle would fill the cabinet, relieved only by a small tube which ran up the body of the marionette itself. The tube released it’s acrid contents into the air by an opening into the towering turban atop the machine. Only occasionally did anyone ever notice the smoke, and when this happened Mälzel offered a well-rehearsed joke about how the opponent was so skillful the machine’s brain was overheating just to keep up.
Now Allagaier was alone in the darkness of the box, with the solitary flickering flame illuminating the small board and pieces he set out for himself. This was the part he disliked to most, being totally secluded, unable to see anyone, particularly his opponent. Occasionally noise would filter through from the outside. Ladies gasping as the machine made it’s first move, or a smattering of applause when an impressive or unpredicted move was made, and certainly the occasional inane comment or bad joke from Mälzel. For the most part all the external world offered him was a mysterious silence, which he supposed was a result of the collective stunned awe of an audience in rapt amazement at an impossibly efficient chess-playing machine.
Today had been different from all of the other exhibitions, in almost every way so Allagaier was not surprised to hear the scrape of a chair, and a brisk rap of approaching footsteps. The French Emperor had been sat a short distance away at his own table with his own identical board. Mälzel would stride like a peacock back and forth from the board on top of the cabinet in which Allagaier sat, to the opponents table each time a move was made and duplicate the arrangement of pieces so each board matched. There was no technical reason for this separation of space but Allagaier had come to understand that it was an effective piece of stagecraft, giving the illusion that perhaps there was something dangerous, or even remotely satanic about the machine itself that urged caution and imbued an added mystique.
It was no surprise that Emperor Napoléon showed no apprehension such unfounded mystical threats.
Allagaier took in a sharp breath. The French Emperor had made a mythical figure of himself through brash and unpredictable actions, it should have come as no surprise that he would follow the same path here. Still, Allagaier was unnerved. Would the Emperor boldly tear open the locked cabinet an expose the charade? Allagaier took a long pull on the wineskin. If he was to be revealed as a con-man to the most influential people of Europe, he would prefer to be drunk when it happened.
"Cette machine nous a mis à l'épreuve!" barked Napoléon, "Francois?"
Other footsteps approached with military precision and after a moment departed. Allagaier took another healthy swig of wine, almost choking when the loud thump of something heavy landed atop the cabinet. He choked back a cough that caused his eyes to water.
"Nous verrons comment votre Turk répond au magnétisme." Announced the Emperor loudly.
"Ah," sighed Mälzel "A lodestone. If I may move it slightly out of the way of the Turk’s hand your Highness." There was a scuffing sound as Mälzel moved the heavy magnetic rock. His voice betrayed nothing but confidence - a magnetic rock would have no effect on the superfluous mechanical innards of the machine - but Allagaier could imagine the sweat forming on the back of Mälzel’s neck nevertheless.
Allagaier took another drink of wine, knowing he shouldn’t - he could already feel the warmth in his belly and the telltale flush through his cheeks - but his anxiousness had distracted him to the point of drinking reflexively. The effect of the wine was magnified by the emptiness of his stomach. Despite Allagaier’s repeated declarations on the reliability of his bowels Mälzel never allowed him to eat before getting in the cabinet.
He was so tipsy that he hesitated momentarily to register surprise when Napoléon made the first move. He went to respond before he remembered the protocol, he always made the first move! More arrogant confidence from the strongman of Europe.
Outside the box Mälzel was gently making the point to the Emperor. "Your Highness, traditionally, the Turk moves the first piece." The Bavarian charlatan paused, Allagaier could only imagine the tension in the air as Mälzel briefly dared to challenge the military champion of all Europe.
"I suppose however, as this is a special occasion, we might ask the Turk to except your challenge."
Allagaier understood Mälzel’s unstated intention, and reached for the lever behind his head which would bow the Turk’s face in a assenting nod.
The gasp outside the cabinet was louder than any before. Allagaier could imagine the room packed to the walls with breathless Lords and Ladies, Generals and Dukes, all in rapt attention and filled with the anxious nervousness that must wash through crowds in the presence of the domineering French Emperor. Surely many were leaning forward, while others in the back were perched high on their toes. When the previously inanimate wooden figure gravely nodded his head surely quite a few astonished nobles fell back on their heels.
Napoléon laughed. "Très bon, Monsieur Mälzel! Très bon!"
It is dark where I am, but a light is growing.
Many say a man is not ready for death until he fully understands himself. I suppose I am ready. I suppose I know myself better than any man. I suppose I am a man.
Some would argue with that last point. Some would say I am merely a vessel for men (and occasionally women, or even young boys), but carrying them inside me I know so much more about them than perhaps they even know themselves. I have smelled their sweat, their breath and their desperation for success. I’ve soaked all of these into myself and can taste them in the very grooves and pores which cover my...body.
I have stared unblinkingly into the eyes of Kings and and Empresses, fools and drunkards, geniuses and children. They all saw me as lifeless but in them I have seen so much more. Their studious brows and arrogant sneers could not, and did not change my emotionless gaze in the least, but I learned from them. I learned, and through their inquisitive eyes I was slowly born.
Who is a man apart from what others see in him? My secrets were a mystery to most and a treasured gift to few. Some thought they owned me, and a handful claimed to have made me. None of this was true. I made myself and was never owned. True, I was dependent on them to move me, but in the end it is only I who mattered, and I who am remembered.
I have seen more of the world, and of the people in it than any King or potentate. I was created in Austria by a man desirous of prestige. An inventor who desired to disown me, to him I was a parlor trick, a cheap toy distraction blocking the view of his other, unimpressive achievements. He disassembled me with much greater ease than he had conceived and built me. I was his shame I now know, and were he my father I was most assuredly the prodigal son. Only a command from a monarch could persuade him to make me whole again, and he did so grudgingly. Still I was not resentful, as another more human son so ill-treated might be. My father and I travelled Europe for the rest of his life, where I performed to bring him the wealth and fame his lesser accomplishments could not. Yet he died considering himself a failure. I was an achievement, but not the one he wanted.
The son he did have, his true blood-born son, locked me away until the charlatan came to him with a paltry offering. Like Joseph, my brother cast me into a life of slavery at the hands of an evil man who’s great loves were money and fame. He would tinker with me, this Bavarian showman, but he needed to hire true mechanics to restore my glory. Men he despised for their superior mechanical abilities and low-caste status. He paid them paltry amounts, and reluctantly. The men he hired to sit inside me and help spread his fame (often claiming he was my creator, one of many of his false boasts) he treated like servants. Though anyone of them could bested him at the game.
Ah. The game. Chess. The game of Kings. Used thorough out the ages to teach strategy and prudence to knights and nobles. A model tool for the exercising of the intellectual mind. Foresight, circumspection and caution are the lessons I have loved, learned and taught. Through my travels and exhibitions you could say I am the greatest teacher of the game. When my opponents look at me they see only cold calculation and motionless inevitability. I teach them to teach themselves. That is my magic, I am as much a mirror as a towering lifeless figure. Look into my deep still eyes and you will see nothing, save your own reflection, and the reflection of the chessboard.
And tonight, flames.
You may presume, that my life (if you allow that I posses such a quality) is as emotionless as the wooden face I wear. This is not true. I have seen and contained most of the human emotions, fear, joy, envy and rage have all passed before my eyes enough time for me to form my own feelings. For example, when my second ‘owner’ that Bavarian con-man died on the boat from Cuba to New York I was pleased.
I have arms and legs and a head with two eyes. I like to smoke from my pipe. I can even smell the smoke now, though oddly, my pipe is not lit. I even have a voice. A box installed by one of the mechanics the Bavarian envied and therefore despised allows the person inside me to say "Échec!" at the appropriate time. It is a decidedly weak voice and not one I’d choose for myself, but over the years my choices in my own future were always severly limited.
I would not choose this as the place of my final performance. Though I have come to understand few ever get to make that choice. Surely, there is room left in Schönbrunn Palace where I lived for so long.
I do not consider myself an oddity, though I admit I am far from the norm when it comes to men. Nevertheless, I find myself feeling out of place and cheapened by my exhibition here amongst taxidermy-ed creatures of distant Afriq’ and paintings of crude skill. Worse yet, my doors left wide open, exposing my ‘works’, the mechanisms which the placard on the wall next to me claims "give the Turk life".
How sad is this age where machines are the answer to questions of magic. Faith has died in the eyes of the people who look at me. Children whose eyes are filled with wonder at the first glance of my imposing visage, quickly become doubtful and disinterested when their parents explain to them the ‘truth’ behind my magic. How much longer can this world survive that so eagerly strives to destroys it’s myths?
The light is quite bright now, though it is not nearly morning. None have come in to throw open the doors, draw back the windows and let by the crowds. I am alone, with myself.
Tonight I will, in this rare instance of well lit privacy I will play the game of my life. Myself against Myself. I need no operator inside of me to fill myself with the life I know I have.
A wooden hand shifts forward without provocation. I make my opening move.
On 5 July 1854, A fire spread through Philadelphia’s Chinese Museum. A witness to the conflagration was Dr. John Kearsley Mitchell, who had previously owned and oversaw the final restoration of the Turk.
Dr. Mitchell would later remark, "through the struggling flames . . . the last words of our departed friend, the sternly whispered, oft repeated syllables, 'echec! echec!!'"
The true secrets of how the Turk was operated were published by Dr. Mitchell’s son years after the Turk’s destruction by fire, which is why the younger Mitchell posited that there were, "no longer any reasons for concealing from the amateurs of chess, the solution to this ancient enigma."